Not-So-Blessed Martin

April 2003By Chrysostom Frank

Fr. Chrysostom Frank teaches at St. John Vianney Seminary in the Archdiocese of Denver.

There We Stood, Here We Stand: 11 Lutherans Discover Their Catholic Roots.  Edited by Timothy Drake. 1st Books Library. 140 pages. $15.70.



The great temptation for a reviewer is to unfairly criticize a piece of writing in terms of “the book I would have written.” This temptation certainly reared its head as I was reading There We Stood, Here We Stand, since the history of the place where its 11 contributors once stood and where they currently stand is, roughly speaking, my own history. It is often important for readers to know something about reviewers, since none of us possesses the divine view of things and each of us, no less than those who write books, stands at a very particular spot in history and consequently gazes at the world from that spot. Knowing something about this spot can help the reader evaluate the review.

To make this self-disclosure as brief as possible: I am a married Byzantine Catholic priest, or as I would prefer to express it, a Byzantine Orthodox-in-communion-with-Rome (for a time I was a Byzantine Orthodox-not-in-communion-with-Rome). I teach patristics, Church history, and Trinitarian theology at a Roman Catholic seminary, and for a considerable length of time in my life I was a Lutheran, educated at colleges and a seminary of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. I left Lutheranism before accepting the laying-on-of-hands to the ministry because I realized that it would have been fraudulent to hide under the cover of Lutheranism while attempting to make Lutherans into something else. This, then, is my own personal spot, from which I have interpreted and evaluated There We Stood, Here We Stand.

The book attempts to explain why 11 Lutherans have found themselves unable to remain within Lutheranism and why they have embraced Catholicism. The contributors do this without rancor or the polemics associated with a previous age, and in this sense it is an even-tempered and ecumenical collection of apologias. The book is not, however, insipid in the way that some modern ecumenical writings can be.

The appendices, which gather together the Catholic-Lutheran “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” and several important documents relating to it, indicate the significant struggle for ecumenical understanding that has occurred on the official level. (Unfortunately, a sizeable chunk of the “Joint Declaration” is inexplicably missing, which compromises the value of the appendices.)

The fractured picture of Martin Luther on the front cover is a very important icon indicating that beneath the gentleness of style and expression, the various authors have been engaged in shattering theological quests. To move from an acceptance of “blessed Martin” as the interpreter of the Church’s Tradition (even given the variation this acceptance has within contemporary Lutheranism) to the recognition that Luther’s understanding or actions or both were flawed in some fundamental way — a theme which runs throughout the book — is certainly not an easy transition for Lutherans who have taken Lutheranism seriously.

The courage of the contributors in publicly revealing the journey of their lives and thoughts ought to be applauded, because such self-revelation is so easily open to the criticism of others — “if only they had done this, read that, talked to people who could have shown them the error of their thinking,” and so forth. Ironically, perhaps only other Lutherans or “converts” will really be able to appreciate how difficult these journeys must have been. In his Foreword, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (one of my own high-church Lutheran icons from college and seminary years) gives his response to the persistent question of why he became a Catholic — “To be more fully who I was as a Lutheran” — and interprets this in terms of the basic intuition of the oneness of Christ, the oneness of Baptism, and consequently the oneness of the Church. It is this intuition, he asserts, that finally leads some Lutherans out of Lutheranism and into the embrace of Catholicism. Each of the 11 contributions to the book is the story of the movement from this intuition to its enactment in the lives of the authors.

It is the difficulty and messiness of this journey, recounted by several of the contributors, which I appreciated most, because it grounds their transition in the concreteness of space and time. The stories of those women who had served as ordained ministers in a Lutheran church are what intrigued me most. Throughout my adult life I have been theologically opposed to the idea of a female priesthood, but have been existentially sympathetic to those women who feel “called” to public ministry. To read about the struggles of such women who have given up their ministerial “calling” in order to embrace the Catholic Church was for me a thought-provoking and humbling experience, since I did not have to make such a sacrifice.

If the book is intended as an explanation of the ecclesiastical move of a few Lutheran clerics and laity into the Catholic Church, it accomplishes its purpose. If, however, it is intended in some way to convince other Lutherans that they ought to do the same, it probably will be less successful. If, on the one hand, I were a committed confessional Lutheran, I might find the various contributors’ theological explanations of traditional points of difference between Catholicism and Lutheranism — e.g., justification, Mary, ecclesiology, and the papacy — to be somewhat less than convincing. The very nature of the book as a collection of personal histories does not easily allow for an in-depth discussion of the theological issues, which may be a handicap if it suggests to readers that it was theological superficiality, rather than real doctrinal seriousness, that has led some of Luther’s disciples to jump ship and return to the safe shores of the papal Church.

If, on the other hand, I were a committed liberal Lutheran, I would certainly not be convinced that an abandonment of my progressive moral and theological views through the restoration of communion with the Bishop of Rome and his Curia has much merit. I would seek fellowship with other like-minded Protestants and dissident Catholics in order to bolster my own opinions. I might also become more aware of the seductiveness and danger of traditional Catholicism for those who are unable to bear the “freedom of the Gospel” and are tempted to return to “the Law.”

There We Stood, Here We Stand will probably make real sense only to those who simultaneously intuit the inherent instability of Protestantism and its possible resolution in the Great Tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Perhaps, this is as it should be. The various testimonies in the book ought to be seen, not as definitive answers to the Reformation controversies, but simply as witnesses by individuals to a deeper and fuller discovery of the one Truth of Jesus Christ and His Church. When the underlying sacramental and biblical vision that Lutheranism has preserved (in part) combines with a clear and honest assessment of where the Reformation has finally led the various Lutheran communities, the door to Catholicism is re-opened. To those who are at this point in their lives, There We Stood, Here We Stand has a great deal to say.

As an Eastern Catholic, the one thing I found rather disturbing about the book, although not entirely unexpected, was the almost exclusively Western way in which the discussions were framed. Most of the writers seemed to equate Roman Catholicism and the Western tradition with the Catholic Church and Holy Tradition. There seemed to be almost no awareness that this equation is somewhat problematic and that there exist other expressions of Catholicism, as equally authentic as the Latin expression, which might possibly offer insights into, and pathways out of, the legitimate issues raised by the Reformation. Perhaps, however, this is the next step for former Lutherans, whose heritage is heavily dependent on Western Augustinianism.

Despite these criticisms, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in things ecumenical, since it clearly raises some of the important problems with which ecumenism is authentically concerned and which cannot be ignored. Moreover, for those who enjoy “conversion” stories, of which there is an abundance at present in both Catholic and Orthodox literature, it is a good read. Grounded in the existential faith and lived experience of contemporary individuals, it reminds us all once again of our responsibility to be ready to offer a witness for the faith and hope that is in us.



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